Tucson, Arizona, is a sprawl city located in a problematic, warming environment. Many residents love its Sonoran Desert ecosystem and picturesque mountain views. The population includes a significant group of retirees from Eastern states with cooler climates. But it is hardly the place one would expect to find an example of cutting-edge, resilient urbanism that might lead architects to the promised land of housing equity.
According to Stefanos Polyzoides and Lee R. Rayburn, that is exactly what Civano, a New Urbanist experiment begun in the early 1990s, has become for its residents and the city that encouraged its development. Although the city within a city has not fulfilled its ambitious utopian goals over more than 30 years, it does suggest a blueprint for planners, policymakers, and developers who may be looking for similar models of resilient housing and ecological urbanism. Their new book, Civano: From Experiment to Model of Resilient Urbanism (ORO Editions, San Francisco), is intended as both a history and a guide to inspire future builders.
Unlike the many publications by card-carrying New Urbanists, this book isn’t a polemical plea for walkable town centers, porches, transects, and form-based codes. Though I am sympathetic to such literature, and tired of the Modernist screeds against Andrés Duany and his followers, there is room for alternate views of community-based design using both ecological and precedent friendly strategies to generate master plans. This book, with its detailed case history of a long-term endeavor to improve both energy efficiency and affordable housing in a Southwest U.S. city, is an exemplary publication that fills a void in urban planning studies.
Like Radburn, New Jersey (1929), and Village Homes in Davis, California (1975), two precedents cited by the authors, Civano’s realization was hampered by economic and social forces beyond the control of its proponents and developers. The instability of the U.S. during the Great Depression, the Arab Oil Embargo, and the 2008 Great Recession made it virtually impossible for large-scale development to proceed successfully over decades. To their credit, the authors carefully document all of the economic and social factors that shaped the planning, funding, and building process. Such detail is a little tedious for the average reader, but the record is invaluable, especially when compared with standard “sprawl” development processes familiar to many architects who work in the housing sector. As Rayburn explained to me, “We came to understand the illusion that housing buyers have a choice in the U.S.: there is really only one model on the car lot.” Even after 60 meetings with Tucson residents indicated their preferences for better, more energy-efficient, and more traditional Southwest houses, when a national homebuilder came on board they got the same models available in New Jersey, Colorado, and South Dakota: mini-McMansions.
The book is split 50/50 into sections documenting the history of the development (beginning in the 1970s) and its design and implementation (beginning around 1996 and ending in 2002). This organization has its advantages, as those with more interest in the architecture of Moule & Polyzoides can browse through lovely illustrations in the second half without reading the detailed, and often frustrating, history of political and interpersonal battles in the first. However, this results in some repetition and a bit of cross-referencing that would have been avoided in a thorough narrative. Luckily, the beautiful book design by Mary Cay Walp and production by ORO Editions integrates the two sections seamlessly. Aerial photos, maps, and drawings tell the story brilliantly, while the text serves as an in-depth record for those wishing to take a deep dive into the numbers and other data.
The overall narrative is a cautionary tale for those brave enough to undertake a similar development in an American city, but nonetheless inspiring for all who want to see both affordable housing and climate change addressed by future leaders. The challenges are familiar enough—the U.S. homebuilding industry, zoning laws, lending institutions, codes and environmental protection standards make true innovation difficult, but not impossible. If perfection is the enemy of the good in the production of any product, this is doubly true of housing and land development. The book is a constant reminder that compromise, and patience, are necessary virtues when pursuing ambitious goals in design and construction.
Rayburn and Polyzoides are realists, not idle dreamers. They do not show the pretty New Urbanist master plan and lament its demise. They do not complain about clueless city officials and greedy developers (well, not much, anyway). They understand the importance of the 2000 presidential election and the country’s drastic swerve to the right. But they are clearly proud of what their team accomplished. The triumph of Civano is evident in its modest and beautiful streets, eco-friendly houses, green spaces, and thriving small businesses—all the result of patient, diligent work on the part of many coordinated actors over several decades, none of whom folded their tents and went home after a setback. Indeed, at several points the leading designers were sidelined by short-sighted developers, only to reappear later as their ideas proved compelling. Through many, many twists and turns of fate, the project somehow came out very well. Rayburn is careful to cite the contributions of building contractors, real estate professionals, and community leaders in the narrative.
Any architect who has stewarded a small multifamily housing project from design through ribbon-cutting is aware that compromises occur just about every month or two. This 700-acre development, with 720 completed housing units, was a monster by comparison. It went through several owners, eventually landing in the lap of Fannie Mae just before the housing market imploded. The city of Tucson was all in at the beginning but stepped away when things got complicated. Only one of the planned three neighborhoods in the master plan was constructed as intended, using innovative building and energy use paradigms. The rest was handed to Pulte Homes after Fannie Mae got cold feet, and the contrast is stark indeed between the status quo and what could have been. It’s no surprise that back-door deals were made by managers when, despite successful sales, an exaggerated narrative of cost overruns and greenhorn developers took hold after 2001, as the Bush administration pushed its easy mortgage agenda.
Looking at the housing types and eco-friendly landscapes in Civano is exciting because one can see regional, traditional, place-specific urbanism in finished form, after almost 20 years of use. Unlike the polished, upper-crust communities on Florida’s coasts that often appear in New Urbanist publicity, this community looks like a working person’s haven in the desert, complete with worn pavement, unkempt gardens, and peeling paint. The fact that it looks wonderful in all the contemporary photos, and seems to be handling the climate crisis better than anything else in Tucson, points to the undeniable fact that this kind of planning and design works, and is simply the best available alternative to sprawl in a state like Arizona. There are no traditional cities in the state, few high-rise buildings, and no dense urban neighborhoods. This is ground zero for testing alternative strategies for housing, energy use, and infrastructure.
The housing types proposed included compounds, patio houses, bungalows, desert country homes (for the high-end buyer), and courtyard housing (not built but in the master plan). Each was developed in concert with home builders and tailored to fit the budgets and timetables needed to keep the first neighborhood on track. Polyzoides, one of the principals and the dean of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, was the mastermind behind these innovative schemes, aided by his wife and partner, Elizabeth Moule, and their Pasadena office staff. Almost every house was specifically designed to echo traditional Southwest typologies, such as the adobe courtyard house and the western ranch. The variegated colors, forms, and public/private spaces in Civano’s Neighborhood One are extraordinary examples of placemaking, to use a current cliché. They are really more than that, because the conservation standards, materials, and clean energy sources used in their construction go well beyond anything built in Southern California or Nevada in recent years. And although fewer “affordable” units were built than planned, the community integrated models at all the desired price points into a well-knit whole. There are no gated enclaves or golf-centric haciendas in this town.
The compelling photos and comprehensive documentation presented in this book make a strong case for more similar, in-depth publications of successful community-centered projects. Sadly, with most development still under the control of the 1%, we have few good examples to choose from. New Urbanism is flourishing, but mainly in places where there is enough private wealth to create high-end housing and business centers, and in a few enlightened cities like Charleston, South Carolina, and Vancouver, British Columbia. A further problem is that architectural publishing is in the doldrums: academic presses such as MIT, Yale, and Chicago will not take on “risky” book proposals by real innovators, let alone ones who espouse traditional design solutions. The large commercial presses that have served the profession for decades, such as Wiley and Praeger, are equally hamstrung by lagging sales. One of the few alternative publishers to embrace a wide range of subjects and points of view is ORO Editions, based in California but with a strong presence in the Pacific Rim. The drawback for authors is that the publisher has a business model based on vanity press companies that printed firm portfolios in the past, also largely in Asia. You have to pay to get a book in print. This situation can’t continue if the profession is to have a lively stream of current ideas, and colorful coffee table books, on hand each year to inspire, provoke, and excite beleaguered designers.
Could there be Civanos in every western region with warm, dry climates? Absolutely—and the road map is in this book. Rayburn told me he learned that “all innovation has a rhythm, from idea to codification to implementation,” and that process is carefully explained in both text and illustrations. As both authors concluded their wise story, they looked ahead to more community based planning: “Through this search for common ground, we can all embrace the diversity and togetherness that has always been our strength and the driver of true American exceptionalism.” John Winthrop couldn’t have said it better, though he and some plucky Puritans had the same idea in mind nearly four centuries ago.
Featured image of Civano via the CNU.